There are few things in the fishing world more exciting than seeing the water erupt around your bait as a huge fish savagely attacks it. If that doesn’t get your heart rate up, either you’re dead or fishing just isn’t your thing. May I suggest Abby Banks’ birdwatching column on page x?
For the anglers among us, there’s really nothing better. But we don’t get to experience it as often as we could, because it only happens when we’re using topwater baits — and there are “rules” for when you can and can’t catch fish on topwaters.
Maybe we should revisit the rules.
First, though, let’s get familiar with topwater baits. The most common is the simple torpedo type, like the Zara Spook and the Rapala Skitterwalk. These lures are pretty basic. Essentially, it’s a stick tapered at both ends. But simplicity here is deceptive, because as easy as they are to make, they can be a real challenge to fish with.
The general way to use these baits is to walk the dog. It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. You need to twitch the rodtip rhythmically (let’s say about twice a second) while reeling at a steady, slow pace. It’s not hard — once you get the hang of it. While you’re trying to get the pattern down, you’ll probably look like you’re having a minor stroke. Don’t worry about it. Happens to everyone.
When you finally get it right, what you’ll have is a lure that darts back and forth as it swims back toward you. That’s walking the dog. Once you can do it, start modifying it. Go slower and faster. Pause it for a few seconds or a minute. Twitch it a few times and pause it again. Vary it up. You’re trying to imitate a dying baitfish, which will do nothing in a steady way.
Other types of topwaters are a bit easier to work. There are poppers, which have cup-shaped faces designed to make noise when sharply jerked (pretty much like a popping cork). There are burblers like the Jitterbug, which make a more subtle noise while magically dog-walking on a simple steady retrieve. Prop baits have propellers on one or both ends, again to make noise when jerked.
There are also soft plastics that can be used at the surface. Z-Man baits are buoyant and will float when rigged with an unweighted hook. With a bit of practice, these can be made to walk. Bass fishermen often use flukes the same way. DOA makes a floating chugger head that will turn any soft plastic into a (rather quiet) popper.
Conventional angling wisdom says that topwater lures work only at certain times — specifically, in low-light conditions. It’s said that predatory fish aren’t willing to make themselves vulnerable when the sun is shining brightly. This is true, except when it’s not.
How many times have you been out on the flats and seen a sudden swirl or pop at the surface? If you pay attention out there, I’m guessing pretty often. Maybe even every time you go out. Next time, note the conditions. Is it dawn or dusk? Is the sky overcast? Maybe a cloud is passing over? Or is the sun shining bright and strong? Once you start logging these events, you’ll probably realize that they’re happening all the time.
Now, you need to figure out which of these are predatory occurrences and which are mullet or needlefish. This will take careful observation if you’re not sure what the differences are, but if you stare at enough of them you’ll figure it out.
And eventually, what you’ll realize is that while predators are more often attacking prey at the surface when the light is low, that’s not the only time. Not at all. Predatory fish in shallow water will go after easy prey whenever it appears, and they never bother to read the rules we write for them to follow.
One last piece of advice: When you see that explosion at your lure, stop. Do nothing. Don’t twitch, don’t reel, and above all don’t try to set the hook. Wait until you feel the fish pulling, and then set and reel. Often, a fish misses a topwater. It will usually come around for another shot, but if you’ve overreacted and pulled the lure out of the area, you’re out of luck. This last bit is much easier said than done, and you’ll screw it up (maybe a bunch of times) before you develop the steely nerves required.
So pay attention, and whenever there’s surface action don’t be afraid to tie on a topwater bait and have some fun. And try not to get too frustrated.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.